Stephen Sprouse Show in Indianapolis gives a New York favorite its proper home

INDIANAPOLIS – Music by the Rolling Stones blared from the speakers at the Ritz nightclub on East 11th Street in Manhattan as men and women walked side by side down the runway. More than 1,500 spectators, with a film of sweat glistening on their necks in the densely packed room, examined the creations, which glowed in the dark, under stroboscopic lighting.

But this show didn’t happen last week or last year or even last decade. It was the debut of designer Stephen Sprouse’s second collection 38 years ago, in May 1984.

“He was so ahead of his time,” said rock legend Debbie Harry, 77, who shared a bathroom and kitchen with Sprouse in an East Village loft for several years in the mid-1970s, in a phone interview.

In the 1980s, Sprouse, who died in 2004, distinguished himself as a designer with day-glo ensembles that mixed graffiti with cashmere and brought a punk rock sensibility to high-end clothing. He created iconic looks for Ms. Harry, Axl Rose and Billy Idol, and his later collections included art from friends such as Jean-Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring and Andy Warhol.

The designer’s eclectic aesthetic is showcased in the new exhibit, Stephen Sprouse: Rock, Art, Fashion, which opened this month at the Indianapolis Museum of Art, in the state where Sprouse grew up.

The show, the largest survey of Sprouse’s work to date, showcases his passion for punk couture, including many ensembles not seen since their runway debuts in the late 1990s, including a version of the an asymmetric silver dress worn by Ms. Harry in Blondie’s “Heart of Glass” music video in 1979; and a polyester and metal button dress worn by supermodel Kate Moss in a 1996 commercial for MTV’s “Choose or Lose” campaign.

“I hope people appreciate how talented and groundbreaking he was,” said Niloo Paydar, the museum’s curator of textile and fashion arts.

The pieces, which also include two portraits of Sprouse painted by Warhol, a close friend of the designer, are part of an archive of more than 10,000 objects donated to the museum by Sprouse’s mother Joanne and younger brother Bradford 2018

“Mom was keen to give it to the IMA because she knew they would take good care of it and a lot of people would have a chance to see it,” Bradford Sprouse told the collection in a phone interview.

“I mean, look at Warhol,” he added, referring to the decision to open the Andy Warhol Museum in the artist’s hometown of Pittsburgh in 1994. “There’s not a whole bunch of other museums down the block.”

During a recent tour of the collection, Lauren Pollien, an assistant curator at the museum, pointed out some other show-stealers: a neon-colored nylon and spandex blouse printed with images of Mars captured by NASA’s Pathfinder mission (viewing the runway audience through 3-D glasses at Sprouse’s Fall 1999 show); two Sprouse leather jackets hand-painted by Italian artist Stefano Castronovo in the mid-1980s depicting a young Warhol and Ms. Harry; a 1988 silk velvet bubble dress with Haring’s famous dancing flourishes; two graffiti lace-up handbags from Louis Vuitton’s Spring 2001 collection; and a set of oversized denim suits that Ms Pollien said initially confused curators because they couldn’t tell if they were for men or women.

“He designed for both,” she said. In addition to the prescient nonconformity of his creations, which disregarded gender binaries, Sprouse’s collaboration with Teri Toye made him one of the first designers to work with a transgender model.

Growing up in Columbus, Indiana, about 45 miles southeast of Indianapolis, Sprouse’s parents were initially unsure if he was a child prodigy or just plain obsessed. The aspiring designer has been designing detailed spring and fall collections every year since he was 10, Bradford Sprouse recalled.

After his father took him to New York when he was 12 to meet designers Bill Blass, Geoffrey Beene and Norman Norell, he began his career in 1972 as an assistant to Halston, another Indiana native, in New York City.

“We’ve had such a weird life,” Dennis Christopher, 79, a friend and former assistant to Halston, said in a phone interview. “We rode in a limo to Diana Vreeland’s house for dinner and then stood on the platform and counted our money to see if we had enough loose change to take the subway home.”

In 1975, Sprouse moved to the East Village and began designing clothes for Ms. Harry, his downstairs neighbor, before opening his shop in 1983 with a $1.4 million loan from his parents. While Sprouse sported an intimidating exterior β€” he was known for his head-toe black ensembles, nail polish, and scruffy black dynel wigs β€” he was cute and shy, his friends said.

“He let his designs speak for themselves,” said Candy Pratts-Price, 73, Sprouse’s friend and former neighbor and former creative director of Vogue.com.

He had a refrigerator-sized color copier in his apartment, on which he enlarged images of rock stars and newspaper headlines until they were distorted before reproducing them in color on canvas. His bedroom sparkled day-glo blue under a black light (one of his favorite lines was “Does it glow?” recalled Jamie Boud, his longtime assistant).

He had a number of eccentricities that were both annoying and endearing to his friends: he served his guests Bloody Marys in measuring cups – he didn’t own glasses – wrote phone numbers and addresses on his arm with a felt-tip pen he carried in his pocket , and often tugged at his friends’ shoes.

“Watching him draw was like watching a Japanese artist calligraph with a brush,” said Ms. Harry. β€œIt had that flow and beauty of movement. One of my favorite things to do was just sit and watch Steve sit down and casually doodle on a piece of paper.”

His use of Velcro, Day-Glo colors, mirrored sequins and high-tech fabrics were ahead of his time and helped land his designs on the pages of Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar.

But commercial success failed to materialize. His commitment to quality – he had developed a penchant for expensive materials during his time at Halston, Mr Christopher said – and disregard for his bottom line got him into financial trouble when he couldn’t fulfill orders. In 1985 he filed for bankruptcy.

He made a comeback in the early 2000s with his collaboration with Marc Jacobs for Louis Vuitton in spring 2001, for which he graffitied a logo Pocket. (Harper’s Bazaar once claimed that the collection “created a thousand waiting lists.”)

Then, in 2004, Sprouse, who had secretly battled lung cancer after years of smoking three packs of cigarettes a day, died of heart failure at 50. He was buried in an Edie Sedgwick T-shirt and after the funeral, mourners wrote messages on his wooden coffin with pens and markers.

“It’s a shame we lost him so early,” Ms. Pratts-Price said. “He would have had so much fun designing for today’s world.”

True to Sprouse’s love of all things punk, the Indianapolis show has the atmosphere of a rock concert. Visitors to the exhibition will hear a playlist of the music Sprouse used in his runway shows while enjoying his bombastic colors and bold graphic prints.

Bradford Sprouse, who was in Indianapolis this month to preview the exhibit and attend a punk concert the museum was throwing to celebrate the opening, said he hopes it will serve as an introduction to his brother’s work for people in the Midwest could serve, many of which do not realize the designer who spent the last 33 years of his life in Manhattan, was from Indiana.

“My hope is that they go in there and get an education, an appreciation and an understanding of who he was and what he did,” he said. “That they walk away feeling good about an Indiana artist.”

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